Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan Taleban Fighters Turn on Pakistan

“The true face of our enemy has now been revealed,” says one commander.
By Mohammad, Mina Habib
  • Members of a 16-member Taleban unit from Kunar province that joined the peace process in May 2013. (Photo: IWPR)
    Members of a 16-member Taleban unit from Kunar province that joined the peace process in May 2013. (Photo: IWPR)

Some Taleban fighters in the Kunar province of eastern Afghanistan say they are ready to switch sides out of anger with recent actions by the Pakistani military. 

They made the offer after hearing of skirmishes in neighbouring Nangarhar province, sparked when Pakistani troops built a frontier post and other military installations in the Goshta district. Officials in Kabul say the area involved lies well inside Afghanistan.

President Hamed Karzai ordered Afghan troops to take “immediate action” to remove the structures, and accused Islamabad of trying to pressure his government to accept a border to which it would never agree.

Kabul said nine Pakistani soldiers and one Afghan were killed in an initial clash at the beginning of May. Further exchanges of fire took place a few days later when Pakistani units tried to rebuild the checkpoint.

The clashes are only the latest manifestation of the long-running mistrust between the two countries, which plays out both at government level and in incidents along their long common frontier. Kabul has blamed Islamabad’s army rather than militants for continual bombardment of Nangarhar, Kunar and Nurestan over the past two years. (See for example Afghans Say Pakistan Behind Cross-Border Fire.)

The “Goshta incident” has galvanised Afghans’ resentment at what they see as a sustained campaign of intimidation, also including covert Pakistani assistance for the Taleban.

Political and ethnic differences were set aside as demonstrations took place around the country, young men volunteered for the fight against the Pakistanis, and convoys of people travelled to Goshta to visit the troops and express their solidarity.

Even Taleban commanders took offence. In Kunar, local government officials, provincial assembly members, and tribal elders said they were contacted by insurgents in the area.

Provincial council member Hajji Nasrullah Khan Sapai said messages had come in from insurgents in various parts of Kunar, transmitted through tribal and religious leaders.

“The Taleban told them that if the government allows them to, they are prepared to fight the Pakistanis and defend their land,” Sapai said, adding that he sent a message back urging the insurgents to halt all attacks on government troops.

A tribal elder in the Naray district, Hajji Sher Mohammadi, said, “The message says the Taleban have defended Islam and the country all their lives, and they are ready to fight any foreigner who attacks Afghanistan today.”

Mohammadi said the insurgents had vowed to capture three times as much Pakistani territory as the land occupied in Nangarhar.

A Taleban commander in Kunar’s Pech valley, who wanted to remain anonymous, told IWPR “We will fight anyone who attacks the Afghan people and soil, be it the Americans or the Pakistanis. I ask the Afghan government to provide us with equipment, and then we will destroy all the checkpoints the Pakistanis have built and drive them out.”

Kunar resident Zia ul-Haq was among those who saw the Taleban offer as a potential turning-point.

“This is a very good opportunity for the Taleban. They must stop following orders from the Pakistani ISI [intelligence service]. They must not destroy their own country because others have told them; they must fight against those who have occupied their land,” he said.

Suspicions that Islamabad is trying to push into Afghan territory are closely connected with the lack of a mutually agreed border between the two states.

In 1893, a line drawn on a map by Sir Mortimer Durand was declared the outer frontier of British India. The line divided the Pashtun people into populations living in two different states. Pakistan recognised the “Durand Line” as its border when it emerged as a state from the 1948 partition with India, but Afghanistan has never accepted its status as an international boundary. In any case, the 120-year-old dividing line is not clearly demarcated on the ground.

Commenting on events in Goshta, President Karzai said Islamabad’s real aim was to force Kabul to discuss the Durand Line and acknowledge it as legitimate.

“But they will never succeed,” he added. “The people of Afghanistan have never accepted the Durand Line since the British created it.”

The Pakistani foreign ministry responded by saying that the Durand Line was already a fait accompli.

Other Afghan politicians suggested that the West was at least partly to blame for the Pakistani encroachment. The speaker of the upper house of parliament, Fazel Hadi Moslemyar, said the site of the contested checkpoint was earlier held by United States forces, which ceded it to the Pakistanis when they withdrew.

Matters were not helped when US officials reiterated that Washington recognised the Durand Line as the border.

Some Afghan analysts believe the response to the Goshta clashes has revealed fault lines in the Taleban’s ranks.

Wasef Wasefi, spokesman for Kunar’s governor, said insurgent activity had declined in the province.

“Since the war in Goshta, the number of Taleban attacks on Afghan forces has decreased significantly. It is hoped that many of the Taleban will soon enter the peace process,” he said. “After the Goshta incident, a group of 16 Taleban members from the Dewgal valley in Chowki district joined the peace programme”.

The commander of the group involved, Mohammad Isa Jaan, told IWPR it was time to stop fighting the government.

“We did not know our enemy before. The true face of our enemy has now been revealed – it is Pakistan. We have decided not to trust the words of this enemy any more. We will not kill one another any more; we must unite against this enemy,” he said.

“I call on other Taleban members not to be deceived by the words and the Islam of the Pakistanis. They should cease internecine fighting, and join the peace programme in order to be united in this national cause – Pakistan’s aggression in our land.”

The official response from the Taleban leadership was more equivocal. In a statement issued on May 13, the group condemned any attack on Afghanistan and pledged to defend its territorial integrity. But it did not pin the blame squarely on Islamabad, instead describing the trouble in Goshta district as “a planned neo-colonial conspiracy” and an attempt to distract people’s attention from “American occupation” and from “the weakness of the puppet regime” in Kabul.

Wahid Mozhda, an Afghan political analyst, welcomed the new sense of national unity that had come out of the clashes in Goshta, but cautioned against falling for what might just be a new tactic from Islamabad.

Referring to Pakistan’s historical fears of a united Pashtun nation, he said, “Pakistan’s goal is to spark war between the tribes living on either side of the Durand Line, and then claim that these tribes are enemies of each other…. That would pave pave the way for recognition of the Durand Line.”

Mohammad is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kunar province. Mina Habib is an IWPR-trained journalist in Kabul.